Compact body with integrated EVF. Touch LCD. 24MP APS-C image sensor. 4K video. Mechanical and electronic shutter options. 9.8fps burst shooting. Wi-Fi.
Some interface quirks. Locked video frame rates. No in-body flash. Expensive.
- Bottom Line
The Leica CL is a small, sleek mirrorless camera that delivers excellent images, but its interface needs some refinement.
The first Leica CL was released in the 1970s. A 35mm rangefinder, both smaller and less expensive than its contemporary, the M5. The modern CL ($2,795, body only) is a digital camera with an APS-C image sensor, autofocus, and a touch LCD. But like its namesake, it's very compact, and priced signficantly less than an M10 ($6,595). It's still a Leica, a luxury item when it comes to cameras, so don't expect it to do more than more affordable options, like the Fujifilm X-T2, our Editors' Choice in the high-end APS-C mirrorless camera space, altough Fuji's X-Pro2 is a more appealing alternative for Leica aficionados.
The CL isn't as dramatically futuristic-looking as its sibling, the TL2. It instead goes for a classic silhouette similar to the antique Leica III series, featuring an all-black finish, a leatherette wrap, and standard physical controls. For comparison, the TL2 is carved from a solid block of aluminum and boasts a huge touch LCD with just a pair of dials to adjust settings. Neither approach is necessarily superior to the other, just different. Leica says the TL2 is for people who want a camera that's as much a work of art as the images it produces, and who are comfortable with an interface that's largely touch-based.
The body is slim and compact—it's very similar in shape to the discontinued X-E, but with a removable lens rather than fixed one. The body measures 3.1 by 5.2 by 1.8 inches (HWD), and weighs 14.2 ounces with its battery installed. With the new Elmarit-TL 18mm f/2.8 ASPH. attached, I was able to slide it into a pants pocket. It's not something I recommend, though, unless you've got roomy pockets. It's easy to envision carrying the CL in a small bag or accessible jacket pocket.
A thin leather strap is included, and the body features standard lugs unlike the TL2, so you can add your own strap if you wish. I enjoyed using the camera with a wide leather wrist strap, the HoldFast Gear Camera Leash, which attaches to the tripod socket.
You can buy the CL in a body-only configuration for $2,795. Leica also offers kits, something the company doesn't typically do. You can get the camera with the 18-56mm zoom for $3,995 or with the 18mm f/2.8 for $3,795.
You won't find any buttons or dials, save the lens release control, on the front plate. The CL works with the same APS-C TL lenses as the TL2, and is also compatible with full-frame SL lenses without an adapter. Leica sells an official adapter to use M rangefinder lenses, which as a rule require manual focus and aperture control. If you go with third-party adapters you can mount pretty much any manual SLR lens to the CL.
The hot shoe is on the top plate, centered behind the lens mount—there's no built-in flash. To its right are two dials with integrated buttons, a small information LCD, and the shutter release, which is surrounded by the On/Off switch. Dial functions vary based on mode.
The left dial's center button switches between Auto, Program, Aperture, Shutter, Manual, and Video modes. The right dial's button has a variety of functions available. It's set to ISO control by default, but a long press brings up a menu to remap it. The functions aren't as extensive as I'd like to see—you can set it to Exposure Bracketing, Exposure Metering, Photo File Format, Self Timer, Scene Mode, and User Profile, but that's it. I'd love to see AF Mode added, and I'm sure other photographers would want other functions at their fingertips, like control over whether the camera uses its mechanical or electronic shutter, the latter of which is useful when you need to take images silently.
The monochrome information display is small, but it shows basic exposure info, including the shooting mode, set aperture, and shutter speed. It will also show the ISO as you change it. It's backlit, with a light that goes on automatically in dim conditions. If you find this distracting, you can disable it, setting the backlight to be turned off at all times or on at all times via the menu.
There are only a few buttons on the rear. Play, Fn, and Menu are to the left of the LCD, with a four-way directional pad and center Set button to the right. Pressing Set toggles the amount of information shown on the rear LCD or in the EVF, giving you the choice to view an uncluttered frame or a frame with exposure information overlaid. You can turn some information on or off—clipping warning, framing grid, horizon line, and live histogram can all be toggled.
You can set the function of Fn, with a long press, and while the options are a bit different than the programmable button up top (Exposure Metering, Exposure Compensation, Photo File Format, Self Timer, Scene Mode, User Profile, White Balance, WLAN), there are still some options missing.
Play is self-explanatory, with Fn serving as the Delete button and Set confirming that yes, you want to delete an image from the card. Menu brings up more options, including the ability to delete everything off the card and to turn on Wi-Fi. There's a Delete Unrated option here too—the left top button rates an image with a star, protecting it from being deleted using this function.
The 3-inch LCD is typical for a mirrorless camera, though not as large as the 3.7-inch panel used by TL2. It is quite sharp (1,040k dots), bright, and supports touch input. The touch integration for focus isn't as seamless as I'd like it to be. Tap to focus isn't active in every focus mode, so you have to decide if you want to be able to touch the screen to move the focus point, or to use the rear directional pad to do so.
The EVF is at the top left corner of the rear, just as it would be in a rangefinder camera. There's a diopter control to its right, so you can tune its focus to match your eyesight. It's a very big EVF, with 0.74x magnification, on par with what you get with the Fujifilm X-T2 (0.77x). Resolution is strong as well, with an OLED panel that packs 2,360k dots into its frame.
If you opt to use M lenses with the CL, you'll be happy with the EVF. Its size and resolution make manual focus a pleasant experience, especially when paired with in-camera focus aids—magnification and peaking. These are also available when using a native lens in manual foucs mode. One thing missing for native lenses is an on-screen focus scale, a feature I'm used to seeing in mirrorless cameras. It's not only a friendly reminder of which direction to turn the focus ring to move from the closest focus point to infinity, but it also gives you an idea of subject distance, and lets you know when you've reached either extreme of focus.
Leica opted not to include any sort of USB, audio, or HDMI connections on the CL. There's a door on the bottom plate that covers the removable battery and the SD/SDHC/SDXC card slot. An external charger is included for the battery, which is the same type used by the current V-Lux. It is rated for 220 shots by CIPA, and recharges fully in about two and a half hours. It's not a bad idea to carry a spare battery or two, especially if you're using the CL as a travel companion.
To make up for the paucity or ports, Wi-Fi connectivity is included. The CL works with its own app, appropriately titled Leica CL, available for Android and iOS devices. The app supports image and video transfer, including support for transfer of Raw (DNG) images to phones that support the format. Raw files are big, about 45MB, but transfer to the iPhone 8 Plus was very speedy.
Remote control via the app gives you full control over the exposure, lets you change shooting mode, and supports tap to focus. You can also record video, though you're limited by the CL's capabilities—the camera itself doesn't support manual control over shutter or aperture when recording movies, just exposure compensation.
Performance and Imaging
The CL is quick. It powers on, focuses, and fires in about a second, and can lock focus in bright light in a quick 0.1-second, and in very dim light in about 0.2-second. A focus assist beam fires in dim conditions. It does its job well, but can be a bit bright in your subject's eyes if you're taking a portrait.
The autofocus system is contrast-based and covers the entirety of the sensor. There are several autofocus area options, including zone (basically a box), pinpoint, and subject tracking, all of which are moved using the rear directional pad. If tracking is enabled, the focus point moves with the identified subject as long as you hold the shutter button halfway down. Oddly enough, touch operation comes into play to re-center with a double-tap, but you can't tap to set the point location in these modes.
There's also a wide setting, which cedes control of the focus area to the camera, along with an option for face detection. If you want to use the touch screen to set the focus point in these modes you can do so—options include tapping to focus only, or tapping to focus and immediately fire the shutter. Unfortunately, there's no way to move the focus point if you use a touch setting and shoot with the EVF, which limits its appeal and utility. The CL would benefit from a unified focus mode that supports both touch and the rear directional pad.
The CL has two shutter modes, electronic and mechanical, and it lets you choose which one to use. The mechanical shutter can fire as quickly as 1/8,000-second, and syncs with an external flash at up to 1/180-second, with support for front and rear curtain sync. The electronic shutter can fire as quickly as 1/25,000-second, but doesn't sync with a flash. The CL is silent when using the e-shutter, but you can set it to make a sound to let you know an image is being captured—the speaker emits a modest, simple click, similar to the sound of a cloth shutter in an older film M.
Regardless of the shutter you use, burst shooting is available at a brisk 9.8fps. It can keep that pace for 32 Raw+JPG, 34 Raw, or an unlimited number of JPG shots. You will have to wait a bit for the buffer to clear after a full burst, about 55 seconds for Raw+JPG and 35 seconds for Raw when using a SanDisk 280MBps memory card. Continuous focus is available, but it's only effective from shot to shot when shooting at the camera's medium shooting speed, about 4fps.
I only received the 18mm f/2.8 lens to use with the CL, so I wasn't able to really stress its focus system when tracking subjects. But the Leica L system doesn't include a lot of telephoto lenses—there's an APS-C 55-135mm zoom and a huge, heavy full-frame 90-280mm available. If shooting fast action is a priority, there are better options available, like the Fujifilm X-T2, Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, and Nikon D500.
I used Imatest to examine the CL's image quality. The 24MP APS-C sensor is the same in the TL2, so I was not at all surprised to see just about the same level of performance. When shooting JPGs it controls noise through ISO 3200, keeping it under 1.5 percent. Detail remains quite strong through ISO 6400, although noise climbs to 2 percent. There's some slight smudging at ISO 12500, the top setting I feel comfortable recommending when capturing JPGs. At ISO 25000 image quality takes a step back, and there's a more pronounced drop at ISO 50000.
Raw capture is also available, and Raw photos at extreme ISOs look better than JPGs. There's certainly some grain at ISO 25000, but detail holds up well. And even at the top ISO 50000 setting, Raw images show strong contrast and color quality, although rough grain does detract from very fine lines. If you're a Raw shooter, you should feel comfortable using the CL at any available sensitivity.
The CL shoots video at 4K at 30fps, at 1080p at 60fps or 30fps, and at 720p at 30fps. But there aren't any other options, and you don't have access to aperture, ISO, or shutter speed control when recording moving images. Exposure control is limited to EV compensation. As for audio, you get what you get with the internal microphone, which is okay for casual use, but not suitable for anything more serious. Video quality is strong, and the 4K footage looks clearer than what you get from the TL2, but the frame gets cropped significantly at that resolution. The entire width of the sensor is used for 1080p capture.
There's also no optical or in-body stabilization available when pairing the CL with an APS-C lens, which is a downer for handheld video. The only stabilized lenses available for the system are the two big full-frame zooms—the 24-90mm and 90-280mm. If you're happy with recording an occasional video clip, the CL will get the job done. But for serious video work, look elsewhere. If you want to stay in the Leica ecosystem, the full-frame SL is the camera to get. But the overall best mirrorless camera for video is the Panasonic GH5.
Rumors have swirled about a digital version of the Leica CL for years, but most have pointed to a compact, full-frame M-mount camera with an EVF rather than an optical one. That's not what we got. Instead the CL is an extension of the company's autofocus mirrorless system, with an excellent ASP-C image sensor, a big, crisp EVF, and simplified controls that don't stand in your way. It's a Leica, and it's priced as such, but I recognize there are photographers out there for whom that isn't a barrier.
If you're one of them and you love the idea of the CL, it's a solid buy with some caveats. The camera's design has the potential to handle absolutely beautifully, but it needs a few firmware tweaks to get there. I love the directional pad for focus selection, but the center button should then reset the focus point position and not a double-tap on the screen. In general, the touch functions and programmable physical controls could both be better leveraged—there's no reason to limit the scope of their functionality.
With some tweaks to the interface, I'd rate the CL a bit higher overall. I love a few things about it—its size, overall industrial design, image quality, EVF, and Wi-Fi system. It also benefits from a growing native lens library, a relatively speedy focus system, and the ability to use just about any lens on the planet with an adapter. And while I won't say I hate, I'm certainly disappointed by the video feature set, the way the touch screen is implemented, and rather anemic battery life. The CL will satisfy a certain niche, so it's no threat to oust our Editors' Choice Fujifilm X-T2, a more crowd-pleasing, Swiss Army knife of a camera. But if you're in that niche, and you stay aware of its foibles, the CL is worth a look.
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